Once again, Turkey is the odd one out in the NATO alliance. The country's Islamist strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is trying to turn what appears to be the most strategic move in NATO's history into carpet-trading at Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.
Erdoğan said on May 13 that his country is "not favorable" toward Finland and Sweden joining NATO, indicating Turkey could use its membership in the Western military alliance to veto moves to admit the two countries.
Erdoğan explained his opposition by citing Sweden and other Scandinavian countries' alleged support for Kurdish militants and others whom Turkey considers to be terrorists. That denunciation cannot be taken seriously. Erdoğan has the habit of calling anyone who is politically and religiously different from his own worldview a terrorist.
In the past few years, Erdoğan's hand-picked list of terrorists included citizens who invested in U.S. dollars, foreign credit rating agencies, opposition parties, municipalities run by opposition parties, main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Turks who vote against his wishes, Kurdish politicians and journalists. In February 2021, he accused student demonstrators of being terrorists as Turkish police arrested them for protesting his appointment of a new rector at one of the country's top universities.
Within a year after the local elections of March 2019, mayors were replaced by trustees in more than half of the roughly 65 municipalities won by the pro-Kurdish HDP party, with some of the mayors being arrested on charges of having terror links. Erdoğan's government appointed governors and other local authorities as trustees in those districts.
Today, credible opinion polls put the opposition block's rating at well over Erdoğan's. According to ORC Research, Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) would win 28% of the national vote if there were elections today, compared to a combined 42.5% vote for the two main opposition parties. In Erdoğan's world, that means two-thirds of Turks (about 56 million) were terrorists.
Except for a six-month period of "falling apart" when Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet along its border with Syria in November 2015, Erdoğan has been Russian President Vladimir Putin's "man in NATO" for the past twenty years.
Now that Erdoğan is blackmailing NATO because potential future members Sweden and Finland are "supporting Kurdish terrorists" let us see what his friends in Moscow have been doing in that regard.
The umbrella Kurdish militant organization that has been fighting Turkey since 1984 is the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK in its Kurdish acronym. The PKK is on the list of terrorist organizations issued by Turkey, the European Union and the United States. Turkey is also fighting the YPG, the Kurdish acronym for People's Protection Units, PKK's offspring in northern Syria. What about Russia? Russia does not recognize either the PKK or YPG as a terrorist entity. And that is fine with Erdoğan.
According to Michael A. Reynolds:
"The Russian-Kurdish nexus has been a recurring feature of Middle Eastern geopolitics for more than two hundred years, since Catherine the Great commissioned the publication of a Kurdish grammar in 1787. Catherine's interest in the Kurds was not purely academic. Kurdish tribes, tsarist officials recognized, were important actors along Russia's southern frontiers. From 1804 forward, Kurds played important roles in Russia's wars with Qajar Persia and Ottoman Turkey. As the century wore on, the Russian army made increasing use of Kurdish units to fight the Persians and Turks."
All that effort echoes in Putin's Russia of today. In 2016, Erdoğan accused Russia of providing anti-aircraft weaponry and rockets to PKK militants. In 2020, Turkey's Foreign Ministry officially condemned Russia for inviting and holding talks with a YPG delegation -- a red carpet treatment for Erdoğan's "terrorists." More recently, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, met with another YPG delegation in Moscow in November. More red carpet treatment for Turkey's "terrorists."
None of the examples of Russian appeasement of Turkey's "Kurdish terrorists" is secret. Russia has been doing all it could for its Kurdish friends overtly, with Erdoğan completely silent. Now the same Erdoğan is blackmailing NATO by vetoing membership for two Western European countries on the grounds that these countries, threatened by Russia, are supporting Kurdish terrorists.
The Western military alliance should be strong enough to tell Erdoğan what he needs to hear.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.